Rhubarb is a colorful and flavorful, yet under-appreciated, vegetable that is at its peak this time of year. Though not common in most people’s diets, this tart plant may offer cancer-preventive properties.
The edible part of the rhubarb plant — the stalk — contains anthocyanins, which yield its bright red color. Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid found in foods such as berries, red onions, black beans, red grapes and black plums. They act as antioxidants in test tube studies, but in the human body, their protection seems more likely to come from their role in cancer-preventive cell signaling. Anthocyanins have demonstrated protective effects on blood vessels and blood pressure, and recent research suggests that anthocyanins may offer anti-cancer benefits, too.
Rhubarb is also a great source of vitamin K1, which is important for blood clotting and bone health. A half cup of cooked rhubarb provides more than one-third of the recommended dietary intake of vitamin K1, along with two grams of fiber (which helps prevent colorectal cancer), some calcium and vitamin C.
Rhubarb originated in China, where its roots were first harvested and dried for medicinal use. It is now grown either outdoors or in greenhouses in temperate climates throughout northeast Asia, North America and northern Europe. Stalks may be harvested starting in their second growing season. The stalks range in color from green to red and have large, green leaves.
If you grow your own rhubarb, be careful to avoid the leaves, as their high levels of oxalic acid make them poisonous. At lower concentrations, this compound isn’t harmful for most people. But the amount in rhubarb leaves can cause severe vomiting and at very high levels, it could be fatal.
Rhubarb is commonly eaten in sweet desserts — most famously known for combining with strawberries in pie — to counterbalance its strong tartness, but don’t be afraid to get creative. Try cooking down chopped rhubarb with a little lemon juice and sugar into a compote to top plain yogurt, oatmeal or goat cheese. Or, bake it into whole-grain muffins in place of another fruit and add a little ginger or cinnamon. For a savory option, chop and add rhubarb to diced red onion, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little mustard to create a zesty sauce for your favorite fish.
For a refreshing drink without added sugar, try this Rhubarb Orange Refresher made with rhubarb syrup that is reminiscent of a Mexican agua fresca.
How is it used?
Rhubarb is a vegetable often categorized as a fruit. Due to its sourness, it’s regularly sugared for use in jams and desserts.
Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable because it’s very sour and slightly sweet.
In fact, it’s easily mistaken for a fruit. Adding to the confusion, rhubarb is officially classified as a fruit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Due to its sour taste, it’s rarely eaten raw. Instead, it’s normally cooked — either sweetened with sugar or used as an ingredient.
It wasn’t until the 18th century, when sugar became cheap and readily available, that rhubarb became a popular food.
Before that, it was mainly used medicinally. In fact, its dried roots have been utilized in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Only the stalks are eaten, most commonly in sweet soups, jams, sauces, pies, tarts, crumbles, cocktails, and rhubarb wine.
As sweet rhubarb pies are a traditional dessert in the United Kingdom and North America, this vegetable is sometimes called “pie plant.”
Nutrient content of rhubarb
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked rhubarb provides 26% of the DV for vitamin K1. It’s also a good source of fiber. Otherwise, it’s not a significant source of essential nutrients.
Rhubarb is not especially rich in essential nutrients, and its calorie content is low.
However, it is a very good source of vitamin K1, providing around 26–37% of the Daily Value (DV) in a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving depending on whether it’s cooked.
Like other fruits and vegetables, it’s also high in fiber, providing similar amounts as oranges, apples, or celery.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked rhubarb with added sugar contains:
- Calories: 116
- Carbs: 31.2 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Protein: 0.4 grams
- Vitamin K1: 26% of the DV
- Calcium: 15% of the DV
- Vitamin C: 6% of the DV
- Potassium: 3% of the DV
- Folate: 1% of the DV
Although there are decent amounts of calcium in rhubarb, it’s mainly in the form of the antinutrient calcium oxalate. In this form, your body can’t absorb it efficiently.
It is also moderately high in vitamin C, boasting 6% of the DV in a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving.
Health benefits of rhubarbRhubarb is an excellent source of vitamin K, which is an essential vitamin for bone health and blood clotting. The vitamin A in rhubarb may also help to fight free radicals that cause skin damage and premature aging, keeping your skin looking healthy and youthful. It’s also high in antioxidants, and many other important vitamins and minerals that provide a variety of health benefits.
May Help Keep Your Heart HealthyThe fiber present in rhubarb stalks can be helpful in lowering cholesterol levels. In an animal study published in the Nutrition Research journal, it was found that rhubarb can help in regulating cholesterol levels even if you eat a moderately cholesterol-enriched diet.
May Aid in Weight LossRhubarb is one of the vegetables with low calories and it is often recommended for people who are struggling to lose weight but still want to remain healthy. 100 grams of the plant contains 21 calories, so feel free to load up on it without packing on any pounds. Additionally, the fiber helps you feel full faster which may further reduce total caloric intake and promote weight loss. A study published in the Journal of Zhejiang University of Traditional Chinese Medicine showed that compounds in rhubarb may help gastric emptying which may promote weight loss.
May Aid in DigestionThe possibly high amount of dietary fiber found in rhubarb may guarantee a healthy digestive system by bulking up the stool, making sure that bowel movements are smooth and regular. Also, it has traditionally been used as a cure for constipation but was only recently discovered why. By easing constipation and other digestive issues, rhubarb may help prevent a wide range of more serious gastrointestinal disorders, which include bloating and cramping.
May Have Anti-Alzheimer’s EffectsAccording to a study published in the Brain Research Bulletin journal, rhubarb glucoside compound rhaponticin protects the body against Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, in vitro results show the positive effect of rhaponticin in preventing the harmful effects of amyloid-beta that are crucial in the formation of senile plaques. Based on this study, it is suggested that rhaponticin could possibly be developed as an agent for the management of Alzheimer’s disease.
May Improve Bone HealthRhubarb is a good source of vitamin K that is associated with promoting osteotropic activity, meaning that it stimulates bone growth and repair. Combined with the potentially rich amount of calcium and other minerals found in rhubarb, the vegetable as a whole is a major player in bone protection.
May Improve Blood CirculationThe trace amounts of copper and iron found in rhubarb are essential for the production of new red blood cells, necessary to maintain the total RBC count in the body. Maintaining adequate healthy red blood cells is essential for oxygenation of the body, thereby ensuring optimum function. Furthermore, according to an animal study in the Chinese Medicine Journal, rhubarb not only promotes blood circulation but also processes the effect of hemostasis.
May Help Manage DiabetesRhubarb is low in carbohydrates and can be used in preparations that are diabetes-friendly. A 2018 study suggests the use of the essential oil extract of the rhubarb stem as an additional treatment, owing to its positive effect on fasting blood glucose levels. Another paper published in the Systems Microbiology journal suggests that rhubarb extracts can exert a hypoglycemic effect as well as improve gut microbiota.
Might Improve VisionRhubarb may contain beta-carotene, vitamin C and lutein, which are compounds that are beneficial for vision and protective to the retina.
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May Relieve Perimenopause SymptomsThis amazing plant can also help with perimenopause symptoms by reducing the occurrences of hot flashes, due to the presence of phytoestrogens.
May Improve Skin CareRhubarb being rich in vitamin A, a potential antioxidant, may help fight off free radicals and delay the signs of aging including wrinkles and fine lines. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent that may help prevent skin infections and acne.
How to Store Rhubarb?
Before you store your rhubarb, you need to make sure its stalks are crisp and have a reddish tinge to them. Make sure the leaves are attached (not drooping) to ensure that it is still fresh. Once you’ve bought rhubarb, store it as follows.
- Step 1: Cut off the leaves.
- Step 2: Cut off the imperfections.
- Step 3: Wash and dry the plant.
- Step 4: Wrap it in a paper towel or foil and refrigerate it!
How to Freeze Rhubarb?
- Step 1: Chop off the leaves.
- Step 2: Get rid of all the imperfections in the plant.
- Step 3: Wash it properly and then dry the plant.
- Step 4: Chop rhubarb into small and even pieces.
- Step 5: Put it in a freezer bag and empty it of all the air.
- Step 6: Put it in the freezer and use it throughout the year.
Note: Make sure to thaw and drain the frozen rhubarb before using it.
How to Eat Rhubarb
You may find fresh rhubarb in your grocery store’s produce section when the vegetable is in season, which is typically from April to June.
When choosing rhubarb, look for stalks that are firm and crisp. Avoid ones that are limp or have blemishes. Look for ones with small leaves, which indicate a younger plant, but be sure to remove the leaves before cooking or eating.
Don’t cut the stalks until you’re ready to use the rhubarb, or else the vegetable may dry out. To store them, place whole stalks into a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Use them within one week. If you want to preserve your rhubarb for later use, cut it and store the pieces in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
You can eat rhubarb in a number of different ways, including raw, blended into a smoothie, or cooked into a rhubarb jam. Other ways to enjoy the vegetable include:
- Baking it into a pie or crumble
- Making rhubarb ice cream
- Adding rhubarb to fresh juices or homemade kombucha
- Blending it into a sauce for meat or poultry
- Pureeing and dehydrating it to make rhubarb leather
- Roasting rhubarb with a drizzle of honey and tossing it in a salad
The Bottom Line
Rhubarb is a unique vegetable that people use in cooking and baking.
Since it may be high in oxalate, you should avoid eating too much of it and try to select stalks from low-oxalate varieties. If you are prone to kidney stones, it might be best to avoid rhubarb altogether.
On the bright side, rhubarb is a good source of antioxidants, vitamin K, and fiber.
Additionally, its sour taste makes it a perfect ingredient in jams, crumbles, pies, and other desserts.